Since the 1920s when the Jazz Age coincided with Detroit’s own meteoric rise, the city has been a hotspot for one of America’s greatest artforms. As home to the world’s largest free jazz festival and a number of legendary clubs, it’s an excellent place to hear local talent and national acts. Here are the best places in town.
The city has hosted a free jazz festival since 1980, and it has grown to be the world’s largest. Each year, 300,000 jazz fans flock to Detroit to hear more than 60 live performances, as well as showcases, talks, and famous late-night jam sessions. It takes place on Labor Day weekend, with stages around Hart Plaza and Campus Martius. If you can’t make it to the actual festival, it now organizes a year-round program of performances.
Dirty Dog Jazz Cafe
Music Venue, $$$
The Detroit Jazz Festival would probably no longer exist without the help of Gretchen Valade, a jazz enthusiast and philanthropist from the city. She also owns the Dirty Dog Jazz Cafe in Grosse Pointe, an intimate, pub-style venue offering a mix of fine dining and comfort food alongside nightly live performances by some of the country’s top jazz musicians.
Cliff Bell’s has been around for so long that when it was closed for 20 years, it was barely a blip in its story. After operating one speakeasy after another during Prohibition, Cliff Bell opened his signature jazz club in 1935. Since being reopened and restored to its former glory in 2005, it’s become one of the city’s coolest nightspots thanks to its classic ambiance, decor and music.
Baker's Keyboard Lounge
Speaking of long-standing joints, Baker’s Keyboard Lounge has a claim on being the world’s oldest operating jazz club, opening two years before Cliff Bell’s in 1933. Over the years it has hosted almost ever big name in jazz, from Ella Fitzgerald to Miles Davis. These days it’s famous for serving soul food, its authentic art deco interior including the ‘piano bar’ and for putting on great jazz by local and touring artists every night of the week.
Jazz Cafe at Music Hall
Tucked inside the Music Hall Center for the Performing Arts, which once hosted the Detroit Jazz Festival, the Jazz Cafe at Music Hall is a cozy spot that hosts poetry and comedy alongside regular shows by local and nationally-recognized artists. The setting is pretty and intimate, with busy nights ensuring the small room will be packed out.
Detroit Symphony Orchestra’s Paradise Jazz Series
Providing a completely different atmosphere to the rest of this list, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra puts on an annual program of one-night-only jazz shows at Orchestra Hall. In the 1940s, the hall hosted jazz artists under the name Paradise Theater, with Billie Holiday, Count Basie and Duke Ellington among those to play. Today, the Paradise Jazz Series honors that tradition.
Don’t let the name fool you, Bert’s Marketplace in the Eastern Market area is a multi-faceted entertainment complex, with a popular soul food restaurant alongside its cozy jazz bar. It’s open late every night of the week, with shows almost every day including open mic jazz jam sessions on Thursdays. Remember the kitchen is open late if you work up an appetite.